On October 14, Australia will have a referendum to determine if an Indigenous Voice to Parliament should be enshrined within the constitution. But what does this actually mean?
As Australian citizens, we are all tasked with thinking, listening and educating ourselves on the referendum before we cast our vote.
Here is a quick explainer on the Voice and tips on how you can listen to First Nations voices ahead of this important referendum.
What is a referendum?
According to the Australian Electoral Commission, a referendum is a vote by the people of Australia to amend the Australian Constitution. The Constitution is the overarching legal document which explains how Australia is governed and overrides all other Australian laws.
Unlike other Government legislation, the Constitution can’t be changed through Parliament and is only changed through a nationwide vote.
In a referendum, the Federal Parliament drafts the question to be asked to the public. Similar to elections, voting in a referendum is compulsory for all Australian citizens over 18 years of age. Watch this quick explanation from the AEC to learn more about how referendum’s work.
For a referendum to be successful, the ‘Yes’ vote must clear a double majority. This means that over 50% of all Australians must vote to amend the constitution in addition to at least 4 of the 6 states securing a majority.
What will be asked in the referendum?
The referendum will ask the below question:
A proposed law: To alter the Constitution to recognise the First Peoples of Australia by establishing an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Voice.
Do you approve this proposed alteration?
The question asks voters to consider both the constitutional recognition of First Nations peoples as well as the formation of a new body, a Voice to Parliament.
We’ll unpack what this means below.
What is constitutional recognition?
Although First Nations peoples have been caring for and living on Country for thousands of generations, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians are currently not recognised within the Australian Constitution.
At the core of recognition is the concept that the deep ancient enduring connection of First Nations people to Country is incredibly important and that it is fitting to recognise in the country’s overarching legal document.
Want to learn more? Read more on Constitutional Recognition from the Human Rights Commission.
What is the Voice to Parliament?
The Voice to Parliament will act as a permanent, representative body of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people from across the nation. It will consult and be an advisory to the Government in relation to legislation which directly impacts First Nations people, such as social, economic and cultural wellbeing.
The Voice’s key role is a consultatory one, meaning it cannot veto or vote in Parliament on legislation. It will only enshrine the right of First Nations people to be consulted on matters which involve them.
The Federal Government has confirmed that the representatives on the Voice to Parliament will not be politically appointed, but chosen by the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community.
If successful in the referendum, further details of the Voice will be confirmed through legislation.
How did it come about?
Australia has been considering constitutional recognition for more than 15 years, and many First Nations people have been leading the conversation for decades.
The latest Closing The Gap report found that only 4 of the 19 current targets to improve the wellbeing and quality of life for First Nations people are on track, with another 4 targets going backwards.
Historically, there have been attempts by successive Governments to support First Nations people through various policies, committees and bodies. Many of these initiatives were dissolved or amended by incoming governments, making it difficult to enact long-term change.
In some cases, well intentioned government attempts to honor Indigenous voices have resulted in highly negative outcomes due to ineffective consultation and a lack of understanding when implementing policy. The harmful intervention by the NT government following the 2007 'Little Children are Sacred' report is just one example of why many First Nations people and leaders are skeptical and distrustful of government action.
Following a 2-year period of consultations, in 2017, more than 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander representatives from across the country met at Uluru and created a 440-word statement, known as the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The statement unpacks the aspirations of First Nations people and asks for constitutional recognition in the form of a Voice to Parliament.
Read the full Uluru Statement from the Heart via the website.
What will it mean for First Nations people?
Supporters of the Voice to Parliament contend that a ‘Yes’ vote will ensure First Nations people can have a say in policies which impact their lives, leading to better outcomes. By enshrining the Voice in the constitution, the Voice’s existence cannot be dissolved regardless of the political party in parliament.
They also contend that formally recognising First Peoples of Australia within Australia’s leading legal document will enable the country to better recognise its past and support First Nations people to be officially recognised for their importance to this land.
Have there been criticisms of the Voice to Parliament?
Like within any group and community, there are First Nations people with differing opinions on the Voice to Parliament. While many First Nations people support the voice, some oppose it completely and others believe it does not go far enough. While it is worth noting, longitudinal studies suggest that approximately 80% of Aboriginal people support the Voice, listening to a range of First Nations perspectives is important to understanding the complexities of this referendum.
Some who oppose the Voice argue that the consultative nature of the body won’t do enough to create actionable change and prevent the high levels of racism against Aboriginal people which we see today. There is also an argument that with some details left to be confirmed through Parliament legislation, that it limits the ability for First Nations people to design the voice.
Where to learn more?
There are plenty of resources and opportunities available to ensure you understand the complexities surrounding this vote.
Over the coming months, we recommend that you:
Listen and amplify First Nations voices - By listening to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander perspectives, you will develop a deeper understanding about constitutional recognition in Australia.
Advocate for kind and respectful discourse - Racism has no place in this debate or in our world. Remember, many First Nations people will be carrying a heavy mental load when being asked to talk or advocate in this debate. Speak from a place of kindness and make sure your friends and family do the same.
Talk with your friends and family - Don’t be afraid to have conversations with your friends and family about the voice. The more we talk about the referendum, the more we can make sure we all together fulfill our responsibility to make an educated decision on voting day.
Check your sources - There is a lot of misinformation surrounding the voice. Look for credible fact checkers or sources. For example, have a look at how The Guardian has fact checked the AEC Yes and No pamphlets.
- Learn more about First Nations history and connection to Country - Check out the First Nations First chapter in Sound Country for more resources to learn about First Nations history.